As Indians, garbage is a part of our daily lives so much that few bat an eyelid. That’s why when I recently went on two heritage walks in the tiny state of Goa, where I now live, and found both sites littered with indestructible looking empty Haldiram and cigarette packets, banana peels, and all the usual trash, it seemed business as usual to me. To expect the sites to be garbage-free is like expecting Mahatma Gandhi to be your tour guide!
But as years of experience teach you, everything in life is relative. After living for five years in the capital city of Uttarakhand and making innumerable road trips to the Kumaon and Tehri regions of the state, I have to applaud Goa.
Despite having a few gargantuan landfills and dumps scattered around the state, Goa is a haven in this respect. This is a result of a far more disciplined and aware citizenry, despite the tourists who routinely wreak plenty of havoc as far as this goes.
Is It Better in the South?
Although I have not lived in what we in the north refer to as south India, driving trips to and around Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, and Andhra Pradesh have left me convinced that this is another area where the south beats the north. In comparison to the filth that one encounters in Uttar Pradesh and the likes, the south is pristine and clean.
I’m just back from ten days in Kerala where I drove over 400 kilometres and can confirm, by and large, that it is far, far cleaner than any part of UP or Uttarakhand, after driving a similar number of kilometres there.
While I understand that it is unreasonable to expect a citizenry accustomed to and comfortable with garbage to clean up its act overnight, where I feel the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan (SBA) has totally failed to make a dent is in the, what one can loosely call, the Indian Himalayan region and its foothills. Heaps of untreated garbage have resulted in small mountains of garbage dotting the landscape no matter where one looks.
Waste is being dumped on the roadsides and close to water sources or being burnt in open piles in these areas, while the district administration twiddles its thumbs.
Lack of Support From Authorities
In Uttarakhand, the Green Hills Trust which has been working diligently – I have visited and seen their work more than once – since 2015-16, is now close to giving up, so frustrated are the office bearers with the lack of sustained and meaningful support from the administration who seem to almost work against all the initiatives undertaken by well meaning citizens. Further, those involved in the efforts argue that till such time as proper rules and legislation around solid waste in semi-urban/rural areas is brought by authorities, it will be hard to bring any major change in the ground situation.
One can still haul up municipalities for areas under their jurisdiction, but vast tracts of land lie outside it. These areas adjoining the municipality are villages governed by panchayats and while some efforts have been made under the Swajal programme to build infrastructure for waste management, no provisions for staff and transport, to ensure regular waste collection, have ensured that the efforts fail.
The Waste Warriors group which has been working in this sphere since 2012 in Dehradun, Corbett, and Dharamshala has similar tales of woe to narrate. The CEO, who I stay in touch with and who goes on many field trips all over the Himalayan region, regularly sends me updates and photos of filthy heaps of trash all over the otherwise stunning landscape.
The photos evoke a mix of sadness and horror in me, as they would in most Indians. I am constantly amazed at what keeps these individuals who are vested in the SWM organisations to remain focused on their tasks despite the hopelessness they must feel at their lack of progress.
Where SBA Redeems Itself
This is however not to berate the government’s SBA initiative. I, like many others, count the SBA as one of the bigger successes of this government for two reasons. One, it has raised the level of consciousness and driven home the need to adopt a cleaner approach to living – be it open defecation, less plastic, better solid waste management, and the works. Although, its main focus has been on building toilets, which has been a partial success.
Building toilets is half the battle; people must be encouraged to use them too.
Two, in fits and starts, there is a perceptible change in many cities and towns in India. Cities like Indore and Varanasi have undergone a total makeover and many who visit them come back exclaiming about how dirt free and spotless they find them. So, SBA remains a huge success in my book.
But there’s no denying the fact that a lackadaisical, apathetic attitude and stubbornness afflicts certain states and territories, and it is these states that need an urgent wake-up call from none other than the Prime Minister himself. A sharp rap on many knuckles and an SBA 2.0 that focuses sharply on the Himalayan belt, both the upper and lower reaches is the need of the hour. While we are at it, a broom can be let loose in chief minister Yogi Adityanath’s backyard to spur a clean up, albeit one radically different from the one he is attempting.
(Anjuli Bhargava is a senior writer and columnist based in Goa. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)